Despite U.N. and official government efforts to curb the theft and illegal export
of art works, the plunder of Cambodia's cultural heritage continues.
According to the National Heritage Protection Authority of Cambodia (NHPAC), from
1990 to early this year, 78 pieces, made from wood, stone and metal were reported
stolen from the Angkor conservatory in Siem Reap. The office, which houses more than
4,000 pieces of great archaeological and historical value, many of them made during
the sixth to 13th century and some before BC, has become a main target of bandits
and thieves. In Prea Kan temple in Siem Reap province, about 70 statue heads have
been removed from the towers of the temples.
But Pich Keo, director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said thieves were also
beginning to target other areas of the country as well, including temples and historical
sites in Battambang, Preah Vihear and Kompong Thom. In Battambang, 40 movable objects
of cultural and historical importance were stolen from the Por Veal conservatory.
Last year, the National Museum, received 15 sculptures collected by the army and
police which had been recovered from robbers.
During the Pot Pot years, many sculptures and historical sites were vandalised but
the country's closed borders prevented the flow of art works onto the international
black market. After the opening of the borders, illicit trade in Khmer art work quickly
resumed, especially into Thailand, a centuries old market. Civil war and partition
of the country facilitiated the trade as guerrillas allowed black maret traders to
ship the art works through their zones.
Pich said the Thai government was refusing to return stolen pieces unless strong
evidence was provided. "If they were stolen from our museum, we could have in
inventory list, including photographs, but if they were stolen from the Angkor monument
or other temples how can we provide proof," he said.
The monumental scale of Cambodia's cultural heritage has made it hard to protect.
Despite a heavily armed presence around Angkor Wat, sculptures and heads of sculptures
continue to disappear. Almost 80 percent of 1070 temples in the country have lost
art works. "We can not control areas such as in Prea Vihear, Siem Reap, Banteay
Mean chey, Battambang and Kompong Tom where there are hundred of temples .
The authorities claimed that those areas are unsafe because of mines and fighting.
"For several years we could not get there or monitor the state of the sculptures,"
said Ouk Chea, director of the National Heritage Dept. He said he believed hundreds
of sculptures had been stolen.
" All these thefts could not have been done by the rubbish people because they
are large ventures," Pich said.
"They need great planning, they need a car or truck and heavy weapons. They
can not cross over the border unless they have permission, because soldiers and police
or custom officials check these areas," he said, suggesting that the trade could
not flourish without some form of official connivence.
Last year, security forces arrested several thieves attempting to steal cultural
property but they were released when they went before the courts and have since vowed
to steal again, Ouk said.
"We arrested them. We had the proof, but we could do nothing," he said.
Ouk stated that he had complained to the Council of Ministers and that many local
newspapers had printed stories "but it was useless."
"Sometimes we offer rewards to encourage people who know about the ancient statues
to inform us, but it seems we are ignored. We sometimes feel disenchanted about the
prospects of Khmer culture surviving," he said.
He suggested the new government take strong measures to protect the art works and
educate young Khmers on the importance of their cultural heritage.
The National Museum in Phnom Penh, houses 2,600 sculptures which were collected and
installed during the 1960s.
Since the end of 1991, robbers have tried to break in through the door and roof four
times but were stopped by security guards each time.
"As you can see, the thieves like it very much, so we need security 24 hours
a day," Pich said.
The NHPAC, the only authority which may legally issue a permit for the export of
cultural property has sought help from the General Direction of Tourism to spread
the word to tourists, that they are not allowed to buy ancient cultural objects as
souvenirs and take them out of the country.
Souvenir shops in Phnom Penh, however, still openly offer such pieces for sale. "It
is very difficult to prevent them from going outside of the country because the merchants
need the money. It is not Khmer people, they don't want to keep their own heritage,
but they don't understand the value of Khmer culture," he said.
In cooperation with the national authorities, UNESCO, is undertaking a series of
information-sharing activities to keep the visitors and the public better informed
about the law in respect to the trade and export of Cambodian cultural property.
"We want the young generation to be aware and sensitive about this problem and
protect their own future generation," said, Veronique Dauge, acting UNESCO representative
Another role of UNESCO, is essentially to encourage states to ratify the 1970 convention
on the illegal sale and transfer of cultural property. The UN body circulates information
concerning thefts of a nation's cultural property. Recent events and the overall
situation as regards the protection of the cultural heritage in Cambodia make it
more urgent than ever to continue to inform the general public and to train local
workers at every level and various fields in an attempt to fight the illicit traffic
in cultural property. Dauge, stated that to "fight the traffic, countries such
as Cambodia need to have very strong legal instruments."
UNESCO has also widely distributed a brochure containing descriptions and pictures
of 150 stolen objects to help officials trace them.